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Apple: Play music at your own risk

Copy-protected audio discs can crash your Mac--but don't expect the computer maker to pick up the cost of repairs.

Mac users may want to check the labels on their music CDs twice, as copy-protected audio discs flooding the market may lead to serious problems when they are played on some computer systems.

Since copy-protected discs are not standard CDs, Apple Computer says they are not meant to be played on its products. In addition, repairs required to undo damage caused by such discs may not be covered by its warranties.

"Apple designs its CD drives to support media that conforms to (published Compact Disc) standards," Apple said in a report recently posted on its Web site. "Therefore, any attempt to use nonstandard discs with Apple CD drives will be considered a misapplication of the product. Under the terms of Apple's one-year limited warranty, AppleCare Protection Plan, or other Apple Care agreements, any misapplication of the product is excluded from Apple's repair coverage."

According to the posting, some copy-protected audio discs are causing Mac OS computers to start to a gray screen. In some cases, the discs will not easily eject from the computer.

In its report, Apple provided a few titles that are known to use the copy-protection technology. The albums include Jennifer Lopez's "J to Tha L-O," Celine Dion's "A New Day Has Come," and Shakira's "Laundry Service." Apple's report also provides three solutions for people who have problems with the discs.

Unlike standard audio CDs, copy-protected audio discs embed software that seeks to block certain uses of songs, for example, preventing consumers from copying the tracks onto a hard drive. Sony, whose Epic label published Dion's "A New Day has Come," has included a warning telling customers that the disc is not compatible with Macs or PCs.

The glitches underscore the pressing need for content owners and consumer-electronics companies to cooperate as consumers increasingly turn to the Internet and computers to find, store and play back digital music and other forms of entertainment. Those efforts have stalled, however, raising the prospects of a one-sided approach that leaves consumers out in the cold.

Apple's warranty policy raises significant questions over who should shoulder responsibility for problems stemming from copy-protected discs. Record labels have released such discs by the millions in stores in Europe and to a lesser extent in the United States. Some of the discs include warning labels, and some have been recalled by the record company after problems surfaced. But as of yet there are few clear rules of the road.

The issue was highlighted this year when a consumer sued SunnComm, Fahrenheit Entertainment and MusicCity Records, alleging they mislead consumers about an album by country singer Charley Pride--the first known copy-protected music disc released in the United States. The suit was settled three months ago, with the defendants agreeing to warn consumers that SunnComm-protected CDs are not compatible with MP3 and other players, among other things.

Apple has been trying to take a middle path in the debate over digital music, arguing that individual ethics rather than technology should be used to combat piracy. For example, Apple has supported the MP3 format--the most popular way of creating a digital version of a song--in its iTunes and iPod, but the latter came wrapped with a plastic warning saying: "Don't steal music."

At least one bill has been introduced in Congress that would require hardware makers to include standard copy-protection features on all devices. For now, however, problems are focusing the spotlight on the actions of the content owners, according to analysts.

"I think Apple will be pretty safe from criticism," said Phil Benyola, a digital media research associate for investment company Raymond James Financial. "I don't think anyone expects the hardware companies to foresee every possible problem that could be created by copy protection that is considered consumer-unfriendly to begin with."

Benyola said it's in the hardware company's interest for the so-called digital rights management companies not to succeed. He said the hardware companies are much more open to copy-protection solutions that don't impede component functionality, such as Windows Media Audio.

"I just don't see Apple and Dell bending over backwards to help out CD copy-protection companies, seeing as how CD burners are a major support for PC sales," Benyola said.

News.com's Ian Fried contributed to this report.